Badass redefined

Barbara Ludman reviews new police procedurals and a courtroom drama.

Nemesis By Jo Nesbo (Harvill Secker)
The Garden of Evil By David Hewson (Macmillan)
Calumet City By Charlie Newton (Bantam)
Shepherds & Butchers By Chris Marnewick (Umuzi)

Police procedurals set somewhere other than Britain and the United States are worth seeking out, especially if written by pros as accomplished as Norwegian Jo Nesbo, who can make a description of policemen watching videos a riveting page-turner. In Nemesis it’s October in Oslo and a balaclava-wearing robber is holding up banks; in the first robbery he kills a young female teller. There’s a new cop at the station, a strange young woman who remembers every face she’s ever seen: she spends her time watching tapes from bank security cameras.

The alcoholic Harry Hole, who’s investigating, has his own problems: foolishly accepting a dinner invitation from a former lover while his current one is in Moscow, he wakes up from a drugged stupor in his own apartment while the woman is found dead in hers. Clues point to him. It’s a wonderfully complicated book that makes police procedures sound interesting.

In The Garden of Evil police procedures are hampered by a strict interpretation of new rules requiring Roman policemen to, well, go by the rules. This does not impress Sovrintendente Nic Costa, whose wife, a former policewoman, was recently killed by a perpetrator fleeing a murder scene. And what a scene it is: a naked post-coital corpse sprawled on a sofa in a deserted warehouse; in front of her an unknown Caravaggio masterpiece set on an easel; behind the bricks in the warehouse wall gruesome evidence of earlier killings. In the background a sinister cult of wealthy men, the Ekstasists, in love with art, sex and death. Clues to the killings are in the painting and a nun, who happens to be an art expert, joins Costa’s Questura team to nail the killers.

Calumet City is an America police procedural, but with an unusual flavour: the author, an American based in Cape Town, went on patrols with a policewoman called Patti Black, then made her the protagonist of this tough-guy, fast-paced crime novel.

The much-decorated Patti Black of the novel works with an all-male team patrolling some of Chicago’s meanest streets. Is she tough? “She redefines the word badass,” says the back cover blurb. A prosecutor is kidnapped and somebody tries to take out the mayor. A drug bust goes bad, with a teenaged suspect shot and killed by someone on Patti’s team. A basement the suspects tried as an escape route is blown up and a skeleton is found in the wall; it’s the remains of the wife who turned her back when her husband sexually abused foster children in their care, including young Patti. Lots of good dialogue, great characters and a plot that is, sadly, somewhat timely.

Shepherds & Butchers sees Johann Weber, a maritime lawyer, talked into defending a young prison warder accused of a heinous crime. In a stunning display of road rage the warder, 19-year-old Leon Labuschagne, guns down seven members of the Diepsloot Karate Club on their way to a competition.

There is no question of his guilt. But the year is 1987, the death penalty is still in force and Labuschagne has spent the past fortnight escorting death row prisoners, one after another, first to the chapel, then to the gallows. Has being both shepherd and butcher warped his mind?

Marnewick has chosen two weeks when 32 prisoners were hanged, sometimes four at a time. Shepherds & Butchers is not Hugh Lewin’s Bandiet, so we don’t have the deeply moving account of death row prisoners singing Abide With Me throughout the night, the singing swelling towards dawn, when one of their number is due to be hanged; nor do we read a first-hand account of prisoners waiting in the yard to be let into the workshop, listening for a distant knocking as coffin lids are nailed shut.

But like his protagonist, Marnewick is an advocate, and he has done a thorough job, as one would expect from a lawyer. Every step of the distasteful system is described, from the prisoners’ change of clothes before exiting the cells to the flinging of the bloody and otherwise soiled garb into a barrel for laundering. We’re told that the rope nearly always tears the ears on the left side. We get it all — ropes that smell of blood from previous hangings, condemned prisoners hyperventilating before the trapdoor opens, broken spinal cords, stretched necks — and the final, terrible job of warders acting as escorts, removing broken bodies and laying them in their coffins.

It is a powerful indictment of capital punishment, until Weber examines the cases of each of the 32 men hanged during Labuschagne’s watch. The cases are real and each of the crimes is horrific — a four-year-old child raped and murdered, a young woman gang-raped, then locked in the boot of a car which is set alight, an old man tortured and killed for his car and some household cutlery. Some of the villains are notorious; others are obscure but equally unsavoury.

Where does Marnewick stand on the issue? It’s impossible to tell. But he gives the reader enough information to decide whether it would be a good idea to restore this gruesome system.

Crime writing at the fair

Saturday June 14 at 1pm, Room 1.62: “Skop, skiet and donder” or “The scene of writing crime in South Africa revisited”.

Angela Makholwa (Red Ink), Deon Meyer (Devil’s Peak), Margie Orford (Blood Rose), Richard Kunz-mann (Dead-End Road) and Mike Nicol (Payback) discuss crime writing with Johan Muller.

Sunday June 15 at 3pm
Murder & More: Crime–Fiction–Reality
Award-winning crime fiction writers Andrea Maria Schenkel (Germany) and Deon Meyer and Mike Nicol (South Africa) discuss crime literature and its aesthetic and socio-political significance.

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Barbara Ludman
Guest Author

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